The Key to Post-Crisis Communications: Offense
As COVID-19 evolves, companies must proactively approach their communication strategy while aligning with their brand’s purpose.
When a crisis first hits—whether it be a data breach, product recall, or global pandemic—it’s natural for companies to be reactive. But the best businesses won’t stay on the defensive for long, because those who take a proactive approach will emerge on top of the virus and their competitors.
The 3 Phases of Crisis Communications
Crisis communications has three distinct phases. Phase One is when the crisis appears. The only priority is to get the right information to the right people, sharing essential info in a comforting way. Phase Two is when leadership executes a proactive and consistent communication strategy guided by the brand’s purpose. This describes all the ways the company is responding to the crisis as it evolves. And finally, Phase Three is when the company begins to emerge from the crisis, reflecting on lessons learned and exploring new opportunities.
We’re into Phase Two of crisis communications during the coronavirus. It’s time for companies to proactively develop a narrative outlining their vision of the future, importantly one that’s tailored to each category of stakeholders. The plan should define what will be consistent yet flexible enough to adapt to the ever-changing situation. It should also be recognized by the CEO. There are some key steps to take along the way….
Silence is a Strategy (But Not a Great One)
This is no time to disappear. Companies must be bold in communicating with customers, employees, investors, and vendors. It’s best to maintain a cadence to messaging, not swayed by the latest development in the crisis. Companies should also feel confident that their stakeholders want to hear from them. This means speaking more, not less.
In a March 2020 survey from Kantar, 77 percent of consumers said they wanted advertising to “talk about how the brand is helpful in the new, everyday life” and 75 percent felt it should “inform about efforts to face the situation. If done properly, advertising can win companies greater loyalty among current consumers, and even gain some new ones along the way. Companies need to be human first, with a message that’s grounded in the present moment.
The same is true for internal communication. One survey showed that more than two-thirds (69 percent) C-level executives across geographies and varying company sizes believe that company culture, especially transparency in internal communications, will have a critically important impact on their organization’s ability to realize its mission and vision.
Aligning team members with a shared understanding of the organization’s vision is critical.
Companies should devise a cohesive narrative shaped by the brand’s purpose that can be consistently deployed across the entire spectrum of communications: internal communications, corporate PR, marketing, and advertising. That requires reviewing all distributed pieces of communication and pulling what may be interpreted poorly given the current climate, such as people shaking hands or hugging.
- A company needs to answer four key questions in crafting a new messaging and communications strategy. First, we suggest defining The Who. This means identifying your key constituencies—employees, customers, suppliers, and investors.
- Next the company should decide The What, or the type of information each group needs. Maintain a focus on how the company will help solve their unique issues and concerns. It’s also important to be clear about what a business knows and what is uncertain.
- With the audience and information in hand, it’s time to address The When. How often should the company communicate with each group? This will likely vary, as communication to employees and key customers will be more frequent than with vendors and investors. Regardless, it’s wise to address all audiences at the onset of this phase.
- The last element is The How, or what vehicle will be used to communicate to each group. Now’s the time to determine the balance between more personal communication delivered through mediums like video, and vehicles like email or social sharing. It’s important to determine which vehicle best suits each group as it’ll vary by audience.
Consistent to All Constituents
Like any other campaign, companies should segment stakeholders and adjust the message accordingly. Employees, customers and investors will need to hear different messages, but they shouldn’t contradict one another. Design that messaging hierarchy and decide what part of the narrative each stakeholder needs to hear.
The communication effort needs to be developed from the very top. This helps the company control the dialogue with all its stakeholders. For example, no one wants a situation where a sales rep says one thing to a customer, and the CEO contradicts that on CNBC later in the week. Communications strategy should be developed by the company’s leadership.
CEO as Chief Storyteller
In times like these, communication is so central to the health of an enterprise that it can’t be completely relegated to the communications team. Communications is how the company expresses its values, and it’s most effective when led by the CEO. This is all the more vital during a crisis because that’s when a company must prove that it lives by its values.
Checklist: How to Start That Story
If companies still struggle on where to start, a simple checklist to help maintain focus can be used, ensuring the plan fits the moment and the business.
Assess the 3 C’s (customers, competitors, context) to uncover new insights and identify market opportunities.
Assemble the communications team. This is the group that comes from all parts of the company to ensure it’s a collective and consistent effort.
Develop a go-to-market narrative and communication architecture. This defines the core message and ensures that every communication reinforces the company’s brand and purpose.
Proactively determine a communications cadence. This will be different for each stakeholder group, and the information provided will be different as well, but the overall message will still reinforce company values and purpose.
Pave a two-way street. This means creating a feedback loop that allows a business to collect impressions, questions, thoughts from stakeholders and incorporate it into future communications.
Once completed it is important to make the process permanent. These processes are part of an ongoing communications protocol. Continuing the efforts being used in the near-term adds to the communications strategy going forward.
Every company must have a clearly articulated messaging strategy and narrative that is aligned with brand purpose. That strategy and narrative need to be leveraged consistently with key stakeholders to drive alignment. As firms emerge from this crisis and pivot for growth, the margin for error will be slim. Those who move effectively and efficiently will emerge on top.
*This article has been authored by Beth Brady and John Baglivo , Beth and John are CMOs with Chief Outsiders, the nation’s leading fractional CMO firm focused on mid-size company growth. They work with consumer packaged goods, professional services, and industrial companies to drive revenue and exceed growth targets.